When it comes to the ACT, there are some things that are beyond your control. But there are lots that you can do to prepare in advance! And the more you take test prep into your own hands, the readier you’ll be for whatever happens on test day. Here are our top tips for planning your ACT study sessions in order to get the most out of your prep time!
How to Improve Your ACT Study Sessions: From Goal-Setting to Practice Tips
1. Set a Realistic Score Goal
The most important thing to do right away is to set a great score goal for you. This doesn’t mean that you need the best score out of everyone that you know or the highest score possible (1600 on the SAT, 36 on the ACT). In fact, setting a goal for a too-high score in too short a time will just end up being discouraging and keep you from appreciating the progress you actually make.
Instead, think about a variety of factors that would make a good ACT score or a good SAT score for you. What colleges do you want to apply to? What are the average scores at your target schools? Shooting for the 50th or even 75th percentile for these schools is a great way to set your target.
Then, get a baseline practice test score. Do this with a full-length diagnostic practice test, taken in test-like conditions. The results of the diagnostic test will help you set a realistic goal. In this video, Erika goes over tips for planning a study schedule that helps you reach your goal.
Very generally, here are some good timeline for score improvements:
ACT Schedule for a Busy Student
- 3 points: 1-2 months
- 5-6 points: 3-4 months
- 7-8 points: 6-12 months
SAT Schedule for a Busy Student
- 70-150 points: 1-2 months
- 150-250 points: 3-4 months
- 250-350 points: 6-12 months
This won’t be true for every student in every situation, but it is a good baseline to use to plan your study at about 10 hours of prep per week.
2. Know How Much Time You Will Need to Study Per Week
Understanding the time commitment of ACT prep will help you set up your schedule in a way that’s manageable with the rest of your commitments. The pacing of your plan will depend on how much time you have before test day. Plan for the following session frequencies and lengths, working backwards from your official ACT test dates:
- One month: 3 days a week, 2-4 hours per day (the upper end of this is for students taking the essay/optional writing test), with 4-hour sessions on one weekend day (you’ll use this for an ACT practice test)
- Two months: 3 days a week, 2-3 hours a day, with 3-6 hour sessions on one weekend day
- Three months: 2 days a week, 2 hours a day, with 4-hour sessions on one weekend day
As you can see, the longer you have to prepare, the lighter your ACT test prep sessions each week will be. This is why it’s important to start studying for the ACT as early as possible, especially if you’re a busy student!
In an ideal world, you’d start prepping for the ACT junior year. Why junior year? By this point in your high school career, you’ve covered the material the ACT tests in your classes. But you’ll still have enough time left to retake additional ACT exams or take the SAT instead if you need to. You’ll get your scores well in advance of deciding where to apply to college, and you won’t have to cram ACT study on top of everything else into senior year. All in all, junior year is a solid choice for testing!
3. Schedule ACT Sessions in Advance and Follow a Study Schedule
When your schedule’s packed, it’s really easy to let longer-term goals (like acing the ACT!) slide, “just for today.” But over time, those dropped sessions start to add up, leading to more and more stress around ACT prep in general.
Don’t let this happen to you! By planning out your sessions in advance, you’ll be more likely to stick to them—and you can also rest easy, knowing that you have this goal under control.
Keep in mind that while solid ACT prep does require several hours a week, you don’t have to do these hours in huge chunks to be successful! If you’re struggling to find 3-4 hour chunks of time for test prep, it’s important to realize that you can break these down into smaller chunks. Even 20-minute study streaks will help you reach your goals over time! You can also maximize your study time by following the tips in this post about boosting your ACT score by 10 points, such as starting to study two hours after waking up.
Magoosh’s experts have already crafted tried and true ACT study schedules for different periods of time to help students reach their goals. Check them out!
4. Figure Out What Will Motivate You to Stick to Your Schedule
Wondering how to stick to your study plan? In the end, it’ll come down to the personal factors that motivate you. Here are just a few that Magoosh students have found helpful in the past!
- Get a study buddy. Having someone else to whom you’re accountable can really help boost your motivation. If you have a friend or friends who are taking the ACT around the same time you are, this can help keep motivation up for both/all of you!
- Reward yourself! Setting up a system of external rewards for when you meet your ACT study goals, like watching an episode of your favorite show or getting a fancy coffee from your favorite place, can help keep you on-track.
- Enlist outside help. Being accountable to an authority figure or a class of people can be really motivating. If you suspect you’ll have trouble sticking to an ACT study schedule on your own, then signing up for an ACT prep course or getting ACT tutoring could be a great way to keep your energy from flagging during ACT study!
- Be gentle with yourself. And yes, this includes in the planning! Schedule lots of breaks into your sessions. Make sure you’re loaded up with water and snacks to keep your energy high. Take time to stretch and even meditate between practice questions, practice sets, and lessons. The kinder you can be to your mind and body, the less strenuous your ACT prep will feel!
- Don’t forget to study the things you’re already good at! This may sound counter-intuitive–after all, if you’re struggling on the math section but awesome at Reading, shouldn’t you spend all of your study time going over geometry, algebra, trigonometry, and charts and graphs? No! Not only is it important that you keep your reading comprehension skills polished for test day, but by consistently practicing the reading section, as well, you’ll remind yourself of your strengths, as well as areas you need to improve.
- Keep the test in perspective. Yes, the ACT is important for college admissions. But at the end of the day, it’s just a snapshot of one morning in a testing room. Other aspects of your application will be equally important to college admissions officers, who know that high school students are more than their test scores. They’ll look at a variety of factors as well, including your grades, your coursework, and your extracurricular activities. So prioritize ACT study, absolutely–but don’t let it cause you undue stress.
5. Prioritize Practice Tests (Essential ACT Practice Tip!)
Taking a full-length practice test uses a big chunk of your study time. But it’s so worth it. It’s incredibly difficult to walk into the test center on exam day and complete a three-hour exam (four hours with breaks, writing, etc.) without having done realistic practice beforehand. This is why regular practice tests should be a key part of your test prep—whether you’re studying for the SAT or ACT! Plan on taking one every 2-4 weeks, depending on the length of your study schedule.
Keep in mind that you should take these exams in test-like conditions, including following timing guidelines and doing the test all in one sitting if you can. If you’re taking the ACT writing test, make sure that you include this optional writing test as part of your practice as well. It’s tempting to skip it—but you need the full test-day experience to really benefit from.
Practice tests will help you track your progress, help you adjust your study schedule, and build your endurance for test day. Once you’ve taken the exam, set aside time the day after to review your answers. This is why getting a prep product or ACT guide with complete answer explanations is so important—it’ll help you understand how to avoid the same types of mistakes next time.
A Final Word on ACT Study Sessions
So if you’re wondering how to improve your ACT study sessions (especially if you have a busy schedule), these tips should help! In the end, it’ll come down to the personal factors that motivate you, so find what works and stick with it. Let us know in the comments below if you have tips for great ACT study sessions!